Twentieth century American poet T.S. Eliot’s classic poem “The Waste Land” deplored the loss of traditional culture in the United States. It explored the misery that erupted as Americans forgot their roots, a simpler time when frugality was the norm. That was when “a penny saved is a penny earned” was practiced; “haste makes waste” had meaning.
Elliot’s lament today might appear even starker, his words ever-more like shouting into the wind. America, many can argue, has gotten a lot fatter around the waist from a diet of unhealthy convenience foods, the kind that often comes in paper or plastic. This has added up to a bulge of a different kind, namely waste that spills onto the landscape and ultimately finds a place at sea. The kind that winds up in the bellies of whales, for example, or entangled with other sea life.
All this has led to a seemingly never-ending refrain that each denizen of the earth has heard over and over ad infinitum: to do his or her part to spare the planet from doom. It’s a call heard so often that it’s become like the “boy who cries wolf” from the tale of “Peter and the Wolf.”
But despite the doomsayers’ cries, it’s widely recognized that more can be done about recycling and reusing waste. The infrastructure in California—indeed the whole USA—hasn’t been upgraded since the early 1990s when we found an export market for recyclable materials. Much of it went to China, but also to poor countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria, Bangladesh, to name a few. According to CEOWORLD, a publication for senior management executives, “China has been the world’s plastic waste dump.”
Our trash had a haven—out of sight, out of mind.
But China isn’t taking it anymore. Western countries, including the United States, a big consumer and disposer of single-use items like plastic—which takes 500 years to fully decompose in landfills—need to network elsewhere for recycling. With overseas markets dried up, it’s like being all dressed up for the big dance but no one to dance with.
China’s decision to refuse our trash has nothing to do with its current feud over tariffs with the United States, says Lance Klug, spokesman for CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery). Instead, he told The Epoch Times it has more to do with China’s use of capitalism.
“The growth in the manufacturing sector as well as a middle class means they [China] have enough of their own to recycle. They’re self-sufficient and don’t need to rely on imported waste like they used to,” he said.
China’s “good riddance” may also have some ado over the content in those containers transported to them from halfway around the world. “They’d get goods contaminated with food, unwashed stuff, even dirty diapers,” said Klug. “The kinds of stuff they obviously don’t want.”
Repercussions of the recycling conundrum that faces California—indeed the United States—include having a domestic infrastructure that became dormant due to reliance on exports to foreign lands. The ripple effect puts a pinch on individuals like homeless persons, who scrimped for recyclable materials and in effect helped to clean the environment.
“Essentially Chinese recyclers and re-manufacturers used to purchase a significant amount of California’s (and the USA’s) recycling,” said Klug. “Throughout the 2000s, as Chinese markets paid more for these materials, domestic recyclers and re-manufacturers could not compete. That delayed investment in our local infrastructure. Now that China is no longer taking most recycled scrap, there is more supply of these materials than demand.”
In the past, California redemption centers had liberal policies and paid for anything considered recyclable. But this isn’t so any more.
Klug notes that California-certified redemption centers are only required to pay for a container if the matter has “CRV” (California Redemption Value) on it. That would be aluminum and glass soda and water bottles, but not plastics like laundry detergent containers. The financial incentive to recycle thus thwarted, more plastics are liable to wind up in landfills.
Klug added that part of the solution in California could be to place the onus of recycling on producers of plastic and paper. “It’s been placed on the consumer for too long. It’s been up to them to recycle,” he said.
However, instead of only recycling, people could also return to using products not intended for single use. This could be a tough sell for revelers at a Fourth of July picnic or tailgate party. An extra step to wash and store plates, forks, and knives for the next time may not be in step with the “convenience lifestyles” of modern times, where “work” is often considered a bad word.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.